John Gay

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John Gay
Unknown man, formerly known as John Gay.jpg
Oil painting by Godfrey Kneller of an unknown man traditionally identified as John Gay. [1]
Born(1685-06-30)30 June 1685
Barnstaple, England
Died4 December 1732(1732-12-04) (aged 47)
London, England
Known for Poetry, drama, ballad opera
Notable work
The Beggar's Opera
Patron(s) William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath; The third Earl of Burlington; Charles Douglas, 3rd Duke of Queensberry; Prince William, Duke of Cumberland

John Gay (30 June 1685 – 4 December 1732) was an English poet and dramatist and member of the Scriblerus Club. [2] He is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera (1728), a ballad opera. [3] The characters, including Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum, became household names. [4]


Early life

Gay was born in Barnstaple, England, and was educated at the town's grammar school. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a silk mercer in London, but being weary, according to Samuel Johnson, "of either the restraint or the servility of his occupation", he soon returned to Barnstaple, where he was educated by his uncle, the Rev. John Hanmer, the nonconformist minister of the town. He then returned to London. [4]

Early career

His first play, The Mohocks (1712), had censorship issues. The following year he wrote a comedy The Wife of Bath , which appeared at the Drury Lane Theatre. [5]

The dedication of his Rural Sports (1713) to Alexander Pope began a lasting friendship with him. In 1714, Gay wrote The Shepherd's Week, a series of six pastorals drawn from English rustic life. Pope had urged him to undertake this in order to ridicule the Arcadian pastorals of Ambrose Philips, who had been praised by a short-lived contemporary publication The Guardian , to the neglect of Pope's claims as the first pastoral writer of the age and the true English Theocritus. Gay's pastorals achieved this goal and his ludicrous pictures of the English country lads and their loves were found to be entertaining on their own account. [4]

In 1713 Gay and Pope both joined the Scriblerus Club, a group of Tory writers supportive of first minister Robert Harley that also included figures such as John Arbuthnot, Jonathan Swift and Thomas Parnell. [6]

Diplomatic service

In 1714 Gay was appointed secretary to the Earl of Clarendon the new British ambassador to the Electorate of Hanover through the influence of Swift. However the death of Queen Anne, three months later put an end to his hopes of official employment. [4] The mission had been an unsuccessful attempt by the Tories to ingratiate themselves with Elector George, heir to the throne, who was angry that the Peace of Utrecht had led to Britain abandoning its allies in the war against France and suspected that the Tory leadership favoured the Jacobites.

The Hanoverian Succession led to the ousting of the Harley Ministry and establishment of the Whig Oligarchy and Gay never held a government post again. While in Hanover he met Caroline of Ansbach, the future Princess of Wales, and Henrietta Howard, who would become a close friend of his. [7]

Return to London

In 1715, probably with some help from Pope, Gay produced The What D'Ye Call It?, a dramatic skit on contemporary tragedy, with special reference to Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd . This appeared on 23 February 1715 as an afterpiece at Drury Lane to Nicholas Rowe's tragedy Jane Shore . [8] It left the public so ignorant of its inner meaning that Lewis Theobald and Benjamin Griffin published a Complete Key to What D'Ye Call It to explain it. The play also featured a ballad, Twas When the Seas Were Roaring, co-written with George Frideric Handel, which became popular in its own right.

In 1716 appeared his Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London , a poem in three books, for which he acknowledged receiving several hints from Swift. It contains graphic and humorous descriptions of the London of that period, depicting the city with photographic accuracy and acting as a guide to the upper-class and upper-middle-class walkers of society. By taking a mock-heroic form, Gay's poem was able to poke fun at the notion of complete reformation of street civility, while also proposing an idea of reform in terms of the attitude towards walking. In January 1717 he produced a comedy, Three Hours After Marriage , which was thought to be grossly indecent (without being amusing) and a failure. He had assistance from Pope and John Arbuthnot, but they allowed it to be assumed that Gay was the sole author. [4]

By 1717 Gay was associated with George, Princes of Wales who as part of the Whig Split had set up a rival court to his father the King which was frequented by opposition Whigs and Tories. [9] In 1718 he collaborated with Handel on the masque Acis and Galatea for which he supplied the libretto.


Gay had numerous patrons, and in 1720 he published Poems on Several Occasions by subscription, taking in £1000 or more. In that year James Craggs, the secretary of state, presented him with some South Sea stock. Gay, disregarding the advice of Pope and others of his friends, invested all his money in South Sea stock, and, holding on to the end of the South Sea Bubble, he lost everything. The shock is said to have made him dangerously ill. His friends did not fail him at this juncture. He had patrons in William Pulteney, afterwards Earl of Bath, in the third Earl of Burlington, who constantly entertained him at Chiswick or at Burlington House, and in the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. He was a frequent visitor with Pope, and received unvarying kindness from William Congreve and John Arbuthnot.

In 1727 he wrote for six-year-old Prince William, later the Duke of Cumberland, Fifty-one Fables in Verse, for which he naturally hoped to gain some preferment, although he has much to say in them of the servility of courtiers and the vanity of court honours. He was offered the situation of gentleman-usher to the Princess Louisa, who was also still a child. He refused this offer, which all his friends seem to have regarded as an indignity. He had never rendered any special services to the court. [4]

The Beggar's Opera

He certainly did nothing to conciliate the favour of the government by his next work, The Beggar's Opera , a ballad opera produced on the 29 January 1728 by John Rich, in which Sir Robert Walpole was caricatured. This famous piece, which was said to have made "Rich gay and Gay rich", was an innovation in many respects.

The satire of the play has a double allegory. The character of Peachum was inspired by the thief-taker Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, and the principal figure of Macheath reflected memories of the French highwayman, Claude Duval, whose execution had created a sensation in London, and who exemplified the flamboyance and gallantry of Gay's literary hero. Gay's decision to launch the work was probably also influenced by the huge interest that Jack Sheppard, a cockney housebreaker, had created in all things relating to Newgate Prison. However, the character of Peachum was also understood to represent Robert Walpole, who, like Wild, was seen as a public but morally dubious character, and whose government had been tolerant of Wild's thievery and the South Sea directors' escape from punishment. Under cover of the thieves and highwaymen who figured in it was disguised a satire on society, for Gay made it plain that in describing the moral code of his characters he had in mind the corruptions of the governing class. Part of the success of The Beggar's Opera may have been due to the acting of Lavinia Fenton, afterwards Duchess of Bolton, in the part of Polly Peachum.

The play ran for sixty-two nights. Swift is said to have suggested the subject, and Pope and Arbuthnot were constantly consulted while the work was in progress, but Gay must be regarded as the sole author. After seeing an early version of the work, Swift was optimistic of its commercial prospects but famously warned Gay to be cautious with his earnings: "I beg you will be thrifty and learn to value a shilling." [4]

Later career

He wrote a sequel, Polly , relating the adventures of Polly Peachum in the West Indies; its production was forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain, no doubt through the influence of Walpole. This act of "oppression" caused no loss to Gay. It proved an excellent advertisement for Polly, which was published by subscription in 1729, and brought its author several thousand pounds. The Duchess of Queensberry was dismissed from court for enlisting subscribers in the palace. In 1730 Gay's substantially rewritten version of his 1713 play The Wife of Bath appeared at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, lasting for three nights. [10]

The Duke of Queensberry gave Gay a home, and the duchess continued her affectionate patronage until Gay's death in London on 4 December 1732. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. The epitaph on his tomb is by Pope, and is followed by Gay's own mocking couplet: [11]

Life is a jest, and all things show it,
I thought so once, but now I know it.


"Gold in Durance."
A miser looks at his hoard of gold through his spectacles, with six lines of poetry by John Gay. A miser looks at his hoard of gold through his spectacles, w Wellcome V0015825.jpg
"Gold in Durance."
A miser looks at his hoard of gold through his spectacles, with six lines of poetry by John Gay.

Among Gay's works are:

References in other works

Jake Arnott features John Gay heavily in his 2017 novel The Fatal Tree. [12] [ non-primary source needed ]

One of the main characters in Alison Lurie's 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Foreign Affairs , is Fred Turner, an American academic researching John Gay.

Related Research Articles

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<i>The Beggars Opera</i> 1728 ballad opera by John Gay

The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of opera, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

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Scriblerus Club

The Scriblerus Club was an informal association of authors, based in London, that came together in the early 18th century. They were prominent figures in the Augustan Age of English letters. The nucleus of the club included the satirists Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Other members were John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry St. John and Thomas Parnell. The group was founded in 1714 and lasted until the death of the founders, finally ending in 1745. Pope and Swift are the two members whose reputations and work have the most long-lasting influence. Working collaboratively, the group created the persona of Martinus Scriblerus, through whose writings they accomplished their satirical aims. Very little of this material, however, was published until the 1740s. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer occasionally joined the club for meetings, though he is not known to have contributed to their literary output. He, along with Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, contributed to the literary productions of the club.

Lavinia Fenton

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Augustan literature

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Ballad opera

The ballad opera is a genre of English stage entertainment that originated in the early 18th century, and continued to develop over the following century and later. Like the earlier comédie en vaudeville and the later Singspiel, its distinguishing characteristic is the use of tunes in a popular style with spoken dialogue. These English plays were 'operas' mainly insofar as they satirized the conventions of the imported opera seria. Music critic Peter Gammond describes the ballad opera as "an important step in the emancipation of both the musical stage and the popular song."

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Imminent, Indeed is a gothic adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Written and directed by Bryn Manion with the assistance of Wendy Remington, and leading man, Sam. Produced by the Creatives and the founding board members of the company of Aisling Arts. This adaptation focuses on Polly Peachum's side of the story and her world as it trips alongside that of Jenny Diver, a new Peachum brother, several comically nefarious underlings, and of course, the ever villainous Henry Macheath.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Thomas Cooke, often called "Hesiod" Cooke, was a very active English translator and author who ran afoul of Alexander Pope and was mentioned as one of the "dunces" in Pope's Dunciad. His father was an innkeeper. He was educated at Felsted. Cooke arrived in London in 1722 and began working as a writer for the Whig causes. He associated with Thomas Tickell, Ambrose Philips, Leonard Welsted, Richard Steele, and John Dennis. Cooke is the source of one of the primary biographies of John Dennis, which he wrote in Latin.

Captain Macheath

Captain Macheath is a fictional character who appears both in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), its sequel Polly (1777), and roughly 150 years later in Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (1928).

The Grub Street Opera is a play by Henry Fielding that originated as an expanded version of his play The Welsh Opera. It was never put on for an audience and is Fielding's single print-only play. As in The Welsh Opera, the author of the play is identified as Scriblerus Secundus. Secundus also appears in the play and speaks of his role in composing the plays. In The Grub Street Opera the main storyline involves two men and their rival pursuit of women.

Three Hours After Marriage was a restoration comedy, written in 1717 as a collaboration between John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, though Gay was the principal author. The play is best described as a satirical farce, and among its satirical targets was Richard Blackmore.

Polly is a ballad opera with text by John Gay and music by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is a sequel to Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Due to censorship, the opera was not performed in Gay's lifetime. It had its world premiere on 19 June 1777 at the Haymarket Theatre in London. A revised and edited version of the score by Clifford Bax and Frederic Austin premiered on 30 December 1922 at the Kingsway Theatre in London.

Hannah Norsa

Hannah Norsa was an English Jewish actress and singer, who achieved fame appearing in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1732 and became the mistress of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford.

The Wife of Bath is a 1713 comedy play by the British writer John Gay. It was inspired by The Wife of Bath's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. The play marked a conscious switch by Gay towards an apolitical and distant past, after his contemporary work The Mohocks had faced controversy and censorship the previous year. Robert Wilks, a celebrated actor and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, appeared as Chaucer. The title role of the wife was played by Margaret Bicknell with Mary Porter as Myrtilla and the cast rounded out by William Bullock, Lacy Ryan, Christopher Bullock, William Pinkethman, Susanna Mountfort and Henry Norris.

Dione is a 1720 tragedy by the British writer John Gay.



  1. "Unknown man, formerly known as John Gay - National Portrait Gallery". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 27 June 2022.
  2. "The 100 best novels, No 3 – Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)". The Guardian. 6 October 2013. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  3. "The Beggar's Opera: world's first satirical opera in a new Festival production". Edinburgh Festival. 13 July 2018. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Chisholm 1911.
  5. Calhoun Winton, John Gay and the London Theatre. University Press of Kentucky, 2014. pp. 30–33.
  6. Winton, p. 39.
  7. Winton, p. 40.
  8. Winton, p. 49.
  9. Winton, p. 56.
  10. Winton pp. 146–147.
  11. "John Gay Monument", Westminster Abbey
  12. Arnott, Jake (2017). The Fatal Tree. Sceptre. ISBN   978-1-473-63774-0.


Further reading